Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blunt Talk

Since comparisons are invidious, it's generally a mistake to invoke an essay by George Orwell in the course of a note of this kind.  But, I think, the best commentary on the Starz comedy series, Blunt Talk, starring the formidable Patrick Stewart is Orwell's essay on "The Art of Donald McGill."  In that writing, Orwell considers a specific comic genre: smutty postcards sold in "stationers shops."   Orwell describes these cards lovingly and, then, remarks that they embody a "harmless rebellion against virtue" and that "human beings instinctively desire to be good, but not too good."  Blunt Talk, despite its "hip" Hollywood pretentions, belongs within this genre.  It's an example of sentimental and deeply conservative smut -- every dirty joke or off-color scene illustrates a fundamental virtue.  This is not surprising since the show is produced by Seth McFarland, a long-time smut purveyor, whose characters on Family Guy and American Dad generally derive from the Archie Bunker school of humor:  the gruff, narcissistic bigot turns out to be loveable because his awful remarks and nasty behavior supports a status quo that we secretly admire more than we publicly deride it.

The premise of the ten half-hour shows comprising Blunt Talk's first (and, probably, only season) is that Patrick Stewart is a famous liberal talk show host on a current affairs show -- a kind of Bill O'Reilly of the Left.  Like Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke long before him, Stewart has a host of zany writers and producers whose peccadillos and love affairs afford the basis for subplots.  Stewart is an alcoholic Englishman with a loyal man-servant, both of them cartoon figures right out of one of McFarland's animated TV shows.  In the opening episode, Blunt goes on a cocaine-fueled binge and ends up being arrested with a transsexual prostitute.  (The opening episode is the sharpest and most transgressive of the ten shows -- the program softens considerably after its first episode; McFarland is a master of using outrageous imagery as a baited hook.)  During the remaining nine episodes, Blunt weathers various crises with the help of his wacky staff and a psychiatrist played by the reliably smarmy Richard Lewis.  The show "jumps the shark" by the fourth or fifth episode, descending to more exotic and outré plots to make its points -- for instance, Stewart's own son appears at Blunt's son about half-way through the series:  incongruously, the middle-aged man is a professional boxer.  Stewart is compelling and it's amusing to hear his Shakespearean diction applied to traffic jams and unhappy love affairs, but the character is more of a collection of zany traits that a believable man.  (I guess there's a "fan-boy" aspect to the show as well -- I think that cameos are played by ageing members of the Star Trek crew from Stewart's previous adventures in TVf land.) The show is not particularly funny, although it is compelling due to McFarland's sheer mania to entertain -- the writers try everything, and, then, some to keep things amusing.  They don't always succeed but there is certainly a lot going on -- the husband of Blunt's senior citizen producer (she is a kind of nymphomaniac involved in a love affair with a 25-year-old Indian kid) has Alzheimer's disease; one of Blunt's writers is a severely neurotic foot-fetishist who is also a hoarder; another writer is an Englishwoman secretly obsessed with Blunt who suffers a string of futile, pointless one-night stands; the third writer, also a woman, discovers that she is a lesbian and tries to seduce her colleague. There are various orgies, drunken and drug-fueled parties and so on.  Blunt who fought in the Falklands War, has post-traumatic stress disorder (we learn) and has to be flogged by his faithful manservant (who happens to be prodigiously endowed) to get ready for each night's show.  (The funniest moment in the ten week series is when the characters are talking about one another's sexual perversions.  Someone says to Blunt:  "Well, you have to be towel-whipped before you can go on air."  Blunt responds:  "True but that's not sexual."  The servant who is knitting in a corner looks up with a stricken expression and asks woefully:  "It's not?")  The show is very literate -- there are many references to contemporary poetry, particularly the work of Mark Strand -- and the dialogue is reasonably snappy, but the sheer volume of perversity and the excessive effort to name-check as many "timely contemporary" topics as possible is more than a little wearying.  And, in the end, the program is deeply conservative -- all of the promiscuity turns out to be unhappy and, so, ends up endorsing something like "true love."  Sex is meaningless if not accompanied by some kind of commitment.  Perversion is endorsed as a way of demonstrating the show's liberal if obviously staid politics -- "I may be a foot fetishist, but I have good self-esteem and, after all, diversity is good thing," the show seems to proclaim.  By the end of the show, the drug-addicted pussy-hound Blunt is shown to be a good and caring father (to his bi-racial son), a kind boss something like Lou Grant on the old MTM show, a crusader for the environment and left wing causes on the order of Rachel Maddow, and a sweet fellow in all respects.  It is more than a little sickening.      

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